Wednesday, January 16, 2008

DETROIT — Native son Mitt Romney last night pulled out his first big win of the Republican presidential race, defeating a surging Sen. John McCain in Michigan’s primary and reviving his flagging bid to win the party’s nomination.

The victory further muddles the Republican race: Each of the first three major nomination contests has produced a different winner, and none has built lasting momentum. In addition, former New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, who has counted on a crowded field and disarray at the top, is still on track with his risky strategy to skip the early contests and focus on bigger states such as Florida, California and New York.

With 89 percent of the precincts reporting, Mr. Romney had 39 percent of the vote and Mr. McCain, a senator from Arizona, had 30 percent.

Mike Huckabee, a former Arkansas governor, was far behind with 16 percent, unable to build on his Jan. 3 win in the Iowa caucuses. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas stood at 6 percent, former Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee at 4 percent, and Mr. Giuliani at 3 percent.

“Tonight marks the beginning of a comeback — a comeback for America,” a weary-looking Mr. Romney told hundreds of jubilant supporters last night. “Tonight is a victory of optimism over Washington-style pessimism. … Washington is broken and we’re going to do something about it,” he said to cheers.

A loss would have been devastating — possibly fatal — to Mr. Romney, whose father, George W. Romney, was head of American Motors in Detroit and a popular three-term governor in the 1960s. The former governor of Massachusetts pulled all ads from South Carolina and Florida, the next two stops for Republicans, to focus on what his aides quietly said was a must-win.

Mr. Romney, born and raised in Michigan, fought off Mr. McCain, who sprang to front-runner status after his win last week in New Hampshire’s primary, by winning core Republicans across the state. Mr. McCain — who jumped into the lead in the latest national polls — was unable to capitalize on his Jan. 8 win, failing to corral the independents and moderate Democrats that gave him a win over Texas Gov. George W. Bush eight years ago.

Mr. McCain, who called Mr. Romney last night shortly after the race was called at 9 p.m. to congratulate him, said at his campaign”s watch party in South Carolina: “For a minute there after New Hampshire, I thought this campaign might be getting easier.

“But you know what? We’ve gotten pretty good at doing things the hard way, and I think we’ve shown them we don’t mind a fight,” the senator said.

Exit polls in Michigan yesterday showed far fewer Democrats voting in the Republican primary than in 2000. That year, 17 percent of the Republican primary voters were Democrats; this time, it was fewer than one in 10.

Just 25 percent of voters interviewed by the Associated Press called themselves independent, down from 35 percent eight years ago. Meanwhile, the proportion of Republicans voting in the party”s primary rose from just under half in 2000 to two-thirds yesterday.

Some analysts said the absence of a real Democratic battle could have brought more Democrats to the Republican primary. Michigan Democrats this year pushed their contest up in the calendar, angering the Democratic National Committee, which stripped the state of any delegates to the convention this summer.

As a result, only Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s name was on the ballot among major candidates, as former Sen. John Edwards and Sen. Barack Obama opted out of the race. Mrs. Clinton won handily with about 56 percent of the vote, defeating “uncommitted” at 39 percent.

Only three Republican candidates made a strong push to win the nation’s fifth Republican nomination contest — Mr. Romney, Mr. McCain and Mr. Huckabee. The economy dominated the campaign in the state, which is reeling from the U.S. auto industry’s downturn and has the nation’s highest unemployment rate at 7.4 percent.

Mr. Romney sought to differentiate himself from Mr. McCain and Mr. Huckabee by highlighting his private-sector experience. He also co-opted the message that has brought Mr. Obama success — change. He said Mr. McCain is a Washington insider who cannot be the agent of change voters seek.

“People have been talking about things that Washington has been promising for years but not delivered,” Mr. Romney told a crowd of about 100 in Grand Rapids yesterday afternoon. “And so, I will go to Washington to stop the bickering, the sniping, the partisanship, the score-settling. I will go to Washington to actually get the job done for the people of America.”

Mr. Romney and Mr. Huckabee disputed Mr. McCain’s contention that some lost jobs will never return to Michigan. But Mr. McCain said he was just delivering a little “straight talk,” and said yesterday in Traverse City that the focus should be on creating education and training program for workers who lose their jobs, pledging, “I will not leave these workers behind, I assure you. We will give them another chance.”

In his victory speech last night, Mr. Romney chastised Mr. McCain for what he termed pessimism.

“There’s no way that an insider in Washington is going to turn Washington inside out. … I will never accept defeat for any industry in America,” he said to whoops and cheers from the crowd.

Mr. Huckabee, an ordained Baptist minister, was counting on a large turnout from evangelicals, the voting bloc that delivered his Iowa win. Outside a Baptist church in Warren yesterday — in the midst of a heavy snow that dropped a half a foot before noon in some areas — the former governor said the weather should not hamper his prospects. “Most of our voters are very focused. We hope so, anyway,” he said.

Last night, Mr. Huckabee said he will fight on, looking for a win in South Carolina, where he leads in the polls.

“I won Iowa; John McCain won New Hampshire; Mitt Romney won Michigan — Ladies and gentlemen, we’re going to win South Carolina,” he said to hundreds of supporters in South Carolina.

Mr. McCain is already targeting Mr. Huckabee there, and he sought to cut into his grip on religious voters in Michigan, spending Monday at a Christian high school in Kalamazoo, where he spoke about “Judeo-Christian values.”

Mr. Huckabee, a one-time preacher, also sought blue-collar votes in Reagan Republican country outside Detroit and made a stop Monday in Lansing to address a group of steelworkers at a plant that manufactures armored military vehicles.

Mr. Thompson skipped Michigan altogether, preferring, as he said, to “stand my ground” in South Carolina, where he hopes for his first win this Saturday. Mr. Giuliani also gave Michigan little attention as he focuses on winning Florida and more than 20 states that hold contests on Feb. 5.

Mr. Giuliani, who strategy has cost him monthslong lead in the national poll, said a win in Florida on Jan. 29 would “make a big statement on the national scene.”

“We can take that right to the nomination, right to the Republican nomination. And I’m the Republican candidate who can win, because I can run in New York. We can run in California, we can run in Illinois.”

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